Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: Zion Williamson with the ball, plus most improved offenses and defenses

Breaking down stats and film from around the NBA, including a look at Zion's improved ball-handling skills.

Zion Williamson has averaged 32.4 points over his last five games.

Each week during the season, NBA.com writer John Schuhmann surveys the league to compile stats and notes for his in-depth Power Rankings. Before the next rankings drop on Monday, here are some of the storylines he’s keeping an eye on this weekend.

1. Zion with the ball

In his second season, Zion Williamson has not extended his range. He’s taken 82% of his shots in the restricted area, the third highest rate among 251 players with at least 200 field goal attempts and down just a tick from last season (85%). In 68 career games, Williamson has made 19 shots (on 56 attempts) from outside the paint. Four of those 19 came in his rookie debut.

But his work in the paint, along with the seventh highest free throw rate (52 attempts per 100 shots from the field) among those 251 players, has Williamson ranking eighth in scoring at 26.4 points per game. Though he’s made just eight 3-pointers, Williamson has the highest true shooting percentage (66.2%) among the 47 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher.

Last season, Williamson scored 15.8 points per game in the restricted area, the highest mark in the 25 years for which we have shot-location data. This season, he’s destroying his own record, averaging 17.9 restricted-area points per game.

The goal for the Pelicans’ offense in regard to the 20-year-old is the same as it was last season: Get him into the paint with enough runway for him to launch himself toward the rim, where he combines a deft touch with an uncanny ability to slice his wide body through however many defenders might be there (or just bounce off them). But the ways in which the Pelicans have achieved that goal have changed.

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Williamson had the ball for 5% of the time he was on the floor last season. Through the Pelicans’ first 23 games this season, that rate was up to a little less than 7%. And over the last 23 games, it’s over 11% (and almost even with that of Brandon Ingram).

According to Synergy tracking, Williamson has seen big jumps in the percentage of his ball-controlling types of possessions (isolation and pick-and-roll ball-handler):

Zion Williamson play types via Synergy tracking

2019-20 2020-21
Play type Poss Freq PPP Poss Freq PPP
Transition 3.5 16.8% 1.20 3.4 15.1% 1.29
Isolation 1.0 4.8% 0.88 2.5 11.3% 1.02
P&R ball-handler 0.4 1.8% 0.44 2.7 12.0% 1.09
P&R roll man 2.1 10.0% 1.16 1.1 4.9% 1.29
Post-up 4.2 20.2% 0.92 3.2 14.4% 0.98
Spot up 2.2 10.4% 0.77 2.3 10.4% 1.01
Cut 3.8 18.0% 1.39 3.4 15.1% 1.47

Poss = Possessions per game
Freq = Percentage of his total possessions
PPP = Points per possession

Transition and “cut” (non-roll-man catches in the paint, for the most part) play-types are still where Williamson is doing the highest volume of work. But it’s been a more balanced diet and the continued development of his off-the-dribble game will be critical going forward.

Opponents generally want to go under ball screens for Williamson. So the Pelicans will sometimes try to set those screens as low as possible, like at the dotted circle …

Redick screen for Williamson

A low screen can make it tougher for the defender to get under and give Williamson a runway …

Adams screen for Williamson

Switching the ball screen can keep Williamson from being able to get downhill, but it can also put him in a matchup he prefers …

Williamson drive past Kornet

Williamson has also shown an ability to read his own defender. If he catches him leaning in the direction of the screen, he’ll go the other way …

Williamson screen reject

And one reason for Williamson’s effectiveness off the dribble is an improved handle, like a wicked in-and-out dribble …

Williamson in-and-out dribble

It’s all about space. If Williamson doesn’t have it, he can run into trouble …

Williamson blocked by Smart

Williamson’s 18.9 ppg in the restricted area are the most in the last 25 years, but his 67.4% shooting in the restricted area ranks just 17th among 47 players with at least 200 restricted-area attempts. He’s had his shot blocked 94 times, 31 more than any other player in the league.

Still, 67.4% (1.35 points per attempt) is a great rate of return. And the Pelicans’ quest to get Williamson to the rim as much as possible will continue.

The last five games have been the highest-scoring stretch (32.4 ppg) of Williamson’s career. The Pelicans have won four of the five to climb within a game in the loss column of the ninth-place Warriors, with all three head-to-head matchups still to come.

The Pelicans have beat the Nuggets, Lakers, Mavs and Celtics over the last 11 days, but L.A. was missing both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while Dallas was missing both Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Pelicans have teased with wins over good teams before and still have a lot of work to do to secure a Play-In spot in the West. While they’ve seen some defensive improvement (see below), the Pelicans still rank 28th on that end of the floor.

Their win in Boston on Monday began a stretch where the Pels are playing 12 of 14 games against the Eastern Conference. That stretch continues with a back-to-back at home, where the Pels are hosting the Orlando on Thursday (8 ET, League Pass) and Atlanta on Friday (9 ET, League Pass).

2. Post-break improvement: Offense

Karl-Anthony Towns (left) and Anthony Edwards have sparked Minnesota’s offensive improvement since the break.

With every team having played at least 10 games since the All-Star break, here are the five teams that have seen the biggest jump in points scored per 100 possessions from before the break to after it:

Biggest post-break jump, points scored per 100 possessions

Pre-break Post-break
Team OffRtg Rank OffRtg Rank Diff.
Minnesota 105.0 28 111.5 14 6.5
Dallas 112.3 13 118.3 2 6.0
Portland 115.3 7 119.6 1 4.3
Atlanta 112.7 11 116.7 5 4.0
Oklahoma City 104.2 30 107.2 24 3.0

Some notes on those five teams:

  • The Timberwolves have had Karl-Anthony Towns (26.4 ppg) for all 12 of their post-break games, compared to just 16 of their 36 games before the break. Anthony Edwards’ game has also continued to blossom and while his post-break effective field goal percentage of 49.6% is still well below the league average (53.5%), it’s a big improvement from his mark of 43.4% before the break.
  • The Mavs have been without Luka Doncic for three of their 12 post-break games, but they’ve played four of those 12 games against teams — Portland, Minnesota and New Orleans — that rank in the bottom four defensively. The six Mavs with the most post-break 3-point attempts — Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Kristaps Porzingis, Josh Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith — have combined to shoot 41.4% from 3-point range, up from 36.0% before the break, with Richardson (from 28.8% to 41.7%) having seen the biggest jump.
  • The Blazers have had a very favorable schedule in regard to opposing defenses, with eight of their 12 games having come against teams that rank in the bottom 10 on that end of the floor. The return of CJ McCollum for the last nine games has been a boost, Robert Covington has the second highest effective field goal percentage (70.3%) among 176 players with at least 75 post-break field goal attempts and Norman Powell has an effective field goal percentage of 63.8% in three games with his new team.
  • The Hawks have seen the league’s second biggest post-break jump in effective field goal percentage, in part because Bogdan Bogdanovic (53.4% since the break) has somewhat replaced Cam Reddish (42.8% before the break) in the rotation. They’ve also seen the league’s second biggest drop in turnover rate, from 14.4 per 100 possessions (22nd) before the break to just 12.0 per 100 (fourth) over the last three weeks.
  • The Thunder have had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for just five of their 11 post-break games and their two players with the most post-break field goal attempts — Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski — have combined to shoot 35%. But they had nowhere to go but up and Ty Jerome (48% from 3, assist/turnover ratio of 3.0) has emerged as a competent back-up. Finally, they’ve seen a huge jump in offensive rebounding percentage (from last to fifth since the break), mostly thanks to the emergence of Moses Brown, whose 5.7 offensive boards per 36 minutes are only topped by Clint Capela and Enes Kanter among players who’ve logged at least 300 minutes this season.

3. Post-break improvement: Defense

Ben Simmons and the 76ers have improved on defense since the break, despite the absence of Joel Embiid.

Here are the five teams that have seen the biggest drops in points allowed per 100 possessions since the break:

Biggest post-break drop, points allowed per 100 possessions

Pre-break Post-break
Team DefRtg Rank DefRtg Rank Diff.
Philadelphia 108.6 5 102.2 1 -6.4
Sacramento 119.1 30 113.5 23 -5.6
New Orleans 116.3 29 112.6 18 -3.7
LA Clippers 111.5 15 108.1 7 -3.4
Orlando 112.3 20 109.1 9 -3.2
  • The Sixers have the No. 1 defense since the All-Star break, despite the absence of Joel Embiid (expected back this weekend) for all but 20 minutes of their 11 games. They’ve played four of the 11 against teams in the bottom 10 offensively, but also four of the 11 against the top 10. They lost to both Milwaukee and Denver, but they lost ugly. One thing they’ve done better defensively is clean the glass, ranking fifth in defensive rebounding percentage since the break (76.2%), up from 14th (73.6%) prior. Of course, those rebounding numbers were best with Tony Bradley (traded at the deadline) in Embiid’s place and have been pretty bad with Mike Scott at the five.
  • The Kings had nowhere to go but up and have played five of their 12 post-break games against teams that rank in the bottom 10 offensively, with none of the 12 having come against a top-10 offense. Where they’ve seen the biggest improvement is opponent 3-point percentage (40.3% before the break, 35.0% since) and, while that pre-break number may have been a little fluky, so too may be the big drop. They’ll get to face the Lakers’ struggling offense on Friday, but will finally face a top-10 attack (that of the Bucks) on Saturday.
  • The Pelicans have one particular game (where the Cavs’ 30th-ranked offense scored 82 points on 98 possessions) skewing the results a bit and (as noted above) they played the Mavs and Lakers without their stars. But they have played five post-break games against teams — the Clippers, Blazers and Nuggets — who rank in the top five offensively. They still have to play Brooklyn twice, but their remaining schedule has twice as many games against teams in the bottom 10 (12) as teams in the top 10 (six).
  • The Magic have played five of their last seven games against top-10 offenses, but they’ve managed to keep things ugly and have pulled off upsets against the Nets, Suns and Clippers. Offense will be struggle without Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, but the defense might not be so bad.

4. Drawing one up for Mr. Clutch

The Charlotte Hornets have surpassed expectations and are currently sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 24-22. One reason is their performance in close games. The Hornets are 16-6 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes and 8-16 otherwise. And much of that late-game success is due to their success from beyond the arc. For the second straight season, the Hornets have been the league’s best 3-point shooting team in the clutch, 32-for-66 (48%) on clutch 3-pointers entering their game in Brooklyn on Thursday.

Devonte’ Graham has shot 10-for-18 (56%) on clutch 3-pointers, the second-best mark among 39 players who’ve attempted at least 15. Terry Rozier’s 12-for-23 (52%) is the best mark among 16 players with at least 20 attempts.

In San Antonio last week, the Hornets drew up a play to get Rozier one of his clutch 3s. Rozier gave the ball to Gordon Hayward and faked like he was going to set a pin-down screen for P.J. Washington, but he quickly pivoted and curled off a cross-screen from Bismack Biyombo, who had slipped out of a ball-screen for Hayward …

Terry Rozier clutch 3-pointer

The Hornets actually lost a clutch game on Sunday, falling in overtime to Phoenix. All nine of their clutch shots were 3-point attempts and they made just two of the nine. They did hold off a Wizards comeback on Tuesday, with Rozier getting a couple of key 2-point buckets late.

5. The Jimmy Butler club

Jimmy Butler is a master at drawing fouls. He doesn’t shoot well outside of 15 feet, but remains an efficient offensive player, because he ranks fifth in free throw rate (54 attempts per 100 shots from the field) among the 251 players with at least 200 field goal attempts.

On the other end of the floor, Butler is great at avoiding the whistle. And this is set to be the seventh time in his career that Butler has had more steals (63) than personal fouls (47). Over the last 10 years, Kawhi Leonard (four times, including this season) and Tyus Jones (three times, including this season) are the only players who’ve had more steals than personal fouls (with a minimum of 500 minutes played) more than twice.

Last season, Butler (103 steals, 81 personal fouls) and Jones (59, 44) were the only two players that did it. This season, there are seven players (who’ve played at least 500 minutes) in the Jimmy Butler Club:

Player Steals Fouls Difference
Tyus Jones 50 21 +29
Jimmy Butler 63 47 +16
Delon Wright 61 48 +13
T.J. McConnell 77 69 +8
Kawhi Leonard 72 65 +7
Jrue Holiday 66 60 +6
Jordan McLaughlin 30 29 +1

There are also two players with more blocks than personal fouls: Rudy Gobert (138, 112) and Jarrett Allen (74, 70).

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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